I’m a legal intern for a team of community-based lawyers who work to eradicate systemic racism within the legal system. I work on a project that provides second chances for individuals who’ve encountered the criminal justice system. Shortly stated: I do criminal background expunctions. Each and every day I talk with individuals whose lives are plagued by the collateral consequences that inevitably follow one who has obtained a criminal record. No matter how big or small the charges may appear, there is no way to escape the societal punishment.
Simply put, collateral consequences are the unanticipated, after-the-fact consequences of obtaining a criminal record that include disqualification for jobs, housing, student loans, getting accepted into school, and the list goes on. In my own terms collateral consequences are methods of state sanctioned discrimination. Once you get a record, you are literally stripped of many of your individual liberties.
Expunction law is full of all sorts of twists, loops, and hurdles that individuals must satisfy in order to be deemed eligible. Only certain types of offenses can be expunged. There are extreme waiting periods (up to 15 years for certain charges to be expunged). Above all, there is an extensive list of disqualifiers. Now you would think that a law written to provide relief would do just that. Unfortunately, I find myself finding more people ineligible or only eligible to expunge offenses that aren’t even giving them trouble.
Imagine how silly I feel informing someone that they must wait fifteen years to have a conviction removed from their record? I’m always bombarded with gut-wrenching responses such as “but that occurred over 8 years ago, I’m a different person” or “do you know that I haven’t had a job in 6 years, nor am I able to get approved for housing because of a stupid mistake I made when I was nineteen.” Although I always anticipate these types of responses, it doesn’t ease that abhorrent feeling deep down inside that forms each and every time I am reminded that there is nothing that I can’t really do anything. The power lies in the hands of the legislators. Legislators who are supposed to serve communities that they often times know nothing about. They don’t have to speak to these individuals that are hopelessly searching for opportunities, I do.
Even more stifling is the fact that I have to explain to countless individuals each and every day that a dismissed charge still appears on your record. Yes, that’s right, you could go to court with your highly esteemed attorney who you’ve spent hundreds of dollars to obtain and they get your case dismissed. Honestly, you could even go without an attorney because you know the charges are bogus, and the prosecutor can dismiss your case, but guess what…YOU STILL HAVE A CRIMINAL RECORD! Yeap, crazy huh? Welcome to America, the home of a broken criminal justice system.
And for those of you thinking? Maybe they should just stay out of trouble, you have clearly missed the complete understanding of how the US criminal justice system works, and how easy it is to obtain a criminal record, ESPECIALLY if you’re Black. In America it is perfectly legal for anyone to press charges against you for practically anything (even if it’s made up), you get arrested or served with a warrant, you go to court, the prosecutor dismisses the charges, and BOOM! Just like that, you have a criminal record.
Collateral consequences are forms of legalized discrimination that plague nearly 1 of 4 individuals with a criminal record by prohibiting them from advancing in society. They’re intentionally inflicted, even though you’re not informed of them during any step of the judicial process. The judge doesn’t say, “congratulations your charge was dismissed, now you will go on to find yourself blocked by this barrier for the rest of your life, you may be denied from apartments, oh and by the way, you also won’t find a job for the next 10-15 years.”